“For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.”
“Can I see the stars, Mommy?” A young boy of around five asked his mother on the gondola ride down from the Coen brothers tribute yesterday here in Telluride. “Maybe,” she said, in a patient voice. “If the sky is clear enough tonight.”
“See that building with all of the windows down there? That’s my school down there,” he said. His mother kept pulling his feet back from where he was lightly kicking me. “It’s okay,” I said. “Well, yeah, but…” His mother wanted to teach him manners. He closed his eyes tightly as the gondola clanged to a stop, the sliding doors opened and we clambering out.
The night before I’d been one of the lucky ones to catch 12 Years a Slave’s premiere at the Galaxy with Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt in attendance. Pitt is one of the producers on the film as well as a supporting player. It’s the only film I’ve seen this week that received a standing ovation. Like Shame and Hunger, McQueen’s new film clutches at the the heart and mind, imprinting itself somewhere inside you permanently. Its harsh depiction of slavery, the talented cast, and McQueen’s gift for long takes made it a true standout. The buzz around Telluride was that it was the strongest film to hit the festival. 12 Years a Slave marks McQueen’s 3rd Telluride premiere and each of them have received the same kind of ecstatic buzz.
As good as Shame was, it had enough naysayers to prevent it from finding much traction in the awards circuit. It was misunderstood by many men much the way Blue is the Warmest Colour will be misinterpreted by some women. Male ambivalence about watching a sex addict probably has something to do with Fassbender being such a good looking guy who can snap his fingers and the women drop their clothes. With 12 Years, they needn’t worry; Fassbender has transformed into the worst kind of man.
After the screening I went out for beers with my pals Alex from First Showing and Tomris from Film Journal. It was late, around 1 a.m. when we even thought about leaving. Just as we stood up to go, Jason Reitman wandered in and ordered two slices. He and Alex knew each other — I quickly exited, being too generally shy but most especially of someone I admire. I loitered outside the pizza joint until Alex, Tomi and Reitman stepped outside.
Tomris and I walked ahead until we got to the park. Michael Fassbender came whirling by with a few friends and then disappeared down into a bar. A cloud of marijuana magically appeared. Come to Colorado and everyone will always be stoned now that pot is legal here. Everywhere you turn someone is hitting the ganja.
Earlier I’d run into J.C. Chandor — there are only a few places for nightlife here in Telluride so if you hang out after sundown anywhere on the main street you’re going to see the stars. Chandor and the All is Lost crew were leaving the next day, all of them eager to get back to their kids and families and lives. Because this kind of success came so suddenly to Chandor he has not yet found a way to be gone from his normal life. He’s such a genuine guy, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met anywhere, let alone Hollywood. There isn’t a bad apple on the All is Lost team — I could have hung with them the whole festival.
At some point, Reitman went his separate way and we wandered back to our hotels.
It was way too late by the time I crashed, and it was one of those fitful nights where it’s too cold to sleep but not quite cold enough to get up and do anything about it. Sleep never really came. I was up at 5 a.m. and in the gondola by 8:30 heading up to see T-Bone Burnett and the Coens.
These are the kinds of moments in Telluride where you pinch yourself. Could this really be happening? Seeing the Coen brothers and T-Bone Burnett twice in one year is an embarrassment of riches. Yes, everyone knows they’re here to sell a movie. And everyone knows I’m here to help them sell it. But that doesn’t take away from the honor it is and the keepsake it will become as the years roll by: a great story to tell and a rare pleasure to relive in the retelling.
I slept much of the rest of the day because I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I decided to walk through town to the Werner Herzog theater at night, to get in line to see the film everyone was excited to see, Gravity. It had to be seen in the Herzog because it’s the best (new) theater in Telluride. As we shuffled in, three generations of redheads sat next to us, the youngest was about ten. I warned that the movie would be scary. “She just can’t stand dragons,” the grandmother said. “She’ll be fine,” said the mother.
The film did not disappoint. Gravity came to a breathless close and after a brief Q&A we were asked to “please continue our conversation outside.”
It looked like it would a clear night. Maybe there would be stars after all. With a few of my colleagues in tow, Jeff Wells among them, we landed at the Fox Searchlight party at the Sheridan. The open bar kept the drinks flowing. Tiny crab cakes and chicken satay were served on clean white plates to the journalists waiting for Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and the film’s extraordinary star, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
It was a crowded room. Everyone was drinking. And drinking. A publicist from Fox Searchlight introduced me to Lupita Nyong’o who gives one of the film’s most powerful performances as Patsy, the favored sex slave chosen by the slaveowner (Fassbender). The young actress was a few weeks away from graduating Yale School of Drama when she landed the role in McQueen’s film. We talked about her willingness to be exposed (naked on set all day long), and her obsession with the film’s true life subject, Solomon Northup. So much so that she only really thought about her character’s place in history once she sat down to watch the film for the first time.
Nyong’o has a bright future ahead of her, and the conversation we had was the highpoint of my day. It’s rare that an actress speaks so thoughtfully. She is most certainly a Supporting Actress contender this year.
The party wore on. McQueen was tired and jet-lagged, so interviews with him were tough to get. After spending a lot of time with Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, McQueen excused himself to relax at the bar. The music was playing loudly and Fassbender began to dance. If there was one person in the room who was truly happy it was him. He and Nyong’o shared a few numbers before it quieted down.
The crowd began to thin and after the 12 Years a Slave team left it became even thinner. Soon, there were only a handful of us left. The other thing that had left room was my sobriety. It’s been a while since I drank that much. All of that free booze had taken its toll. I think I was pinning Pete Hammond with questions about what movie he thinks might win Best Picture. He said he makes it a point not to name the winner until later.
Kris Tapley invited Jason Reitman to come and party with us. He called me over to meet Reitman, finally, after all of these years. He was funny and sweet but I only remember bits and pieces of our conversation. I was certain I had morphed into Lee Remick from Days of Wine and Roses or worse, Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I recall telling him how great I thought Labor Day was, and how he should keep taking those kinds of risks, and how much I appreciated that he’d stepped so far outside his comfort zone on this. I’ve been watching Reitman’s career evolve from the beginning, from his first film in 2005 and up to today. If you go from Thank You for Smoking up to Labor Day, with Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult in between, how could anyone not be impressed by that kind of range?
The very down-to-earth Reitman thanked me graciously — that much I can remember. Oh god, I think I put my hand on his shoulder Hollywood mogul style and said “let’s do an interview sometime, sweetie.” No, I totally did. It’s all coming back in vivid flashback. At least I didn’t Mrs. Robinson him. That much I didn’t do.
I didn’t close the joint but at some point I had to leave. I remember stumbling out with Pete Hammond and we rambled on about the Oscars — what we think might happen, how we think it might go. We were all on the same page about 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and the tight Best Actor race (Redford vs. Ejiofor vs. Whitaker and then maybe McConaughey).
Pete went off into the night as I forked off towards the Mountainside Inn. I forgot to stop and look up.
The next day I would catch a 1 p.m. showing for Prisoners and, immediately after that, Gloria at the La Pierre. Walking down the road there was Reitman again. He was looking at his phone and we almost crashed into each other. “Oh hello,” I said. “Oh hi,” he said. It wasn’t quite like the morning after a scene in McQueen’s Shame but it was close. No, I kid. He was as nice as ever. I said, “Sorry I was so drunk last night,” and he came back with, “Oh, so was I.” There was a brief uneasy beat before he said, “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?” No, I kid again! He said nothing of the sort. In fact, he was engaged on his phone in conversation about a plane that had crash-landed that morning. No one was hurt but the news rattled the festival a bit.
When you fly into Telluride, there is a tiny strip for landing. Everyone who flies that route talks of the terrifying last few minutes perching above that landing strip. I stopped Reitman and told him that the night before, while talking to one of the producers from All is Lost, she expressed fear and anxiety about flying out of Telluride. “It’s nothing to worry about,” I told her. “I’ve done research. Those planes never crash.”
Reitman was talking to someone about more important things. Everyone was safe. That was the best news. It could have gone so wrong.
As I made my way down to the La Pierre for Gloria, I thought of the little boy’s wish to see the stars. I forgot to look up last night on my drunken walk of shame back to the hotel. I vowed I would look up tonight, for the kid’s sake if nothing else. His tiny little Velcro shoes reminded me of what it’s like to have a curious 5-year-old and how much I missed buying those little shoes.
I’d look up and I’d hear him say, “Do you see the stars?”
The sky would be clear. Thousands of stars would emerge, spread far apart or clustered in tangles across the Milky Way. In the clarity of Colorado air, the boy from the gondola might think the stars look so close that he can reach out and feel their warmth. Maybe he’ll raise his tiny hands to see if he might grab one. When his fingers wrap around emptiness, when the seductive mirage slips away, will he ever try to touch one again?
Somehow I get the feeling he’ll keep believing the stars are within his reach. High in the peaks of the Rockies, stars and more stars. They surround us here. Spellbinding twinkles of light that trick the eye with illusions of intimate proximity. Infinite stars above, impossibly distant; ephemeral stars on earth, implausibly close. We don’t need them to survive, maybe, not like we need oxygen or gravity. But they bring us more beauty than we have any right to desire. Bright enough to dazzle us from trillions of miles away, or from right across the room. Should any of us reach for that enticing light — so close yet impossibly far? I hope the boy in the gondola learned something here at Telluride — a lesson about stars and illusions, about gravity and light. We don’t have to touch the stars. If we just stop to look, their magical light will reach out to touch us.